The Musical Micro
'A Wandering Mistrel, I...'
Tony 'Chips With Everything' Mills, back with more software for the increasingly popular Atari 520ST
Tony Mills waxes lyrical over the latest for the 520 ST
Now that the software houses are a bit more confident about the continued existence of Atari (which we would have thought was a sure thing as much as 18 months ago), they've started to latch on to the musical possibilities of the 520ST and 1040ST micros.
We should all know by now that there are several professional composition packages about for the Ataris, notably Steinberg's Pro 24 which gives 24 channels of MIDI control, 200,000 note capacity and all that jazz. But it is a little on the expensive side, so perhaps there's a market for cheaper Atari music software with slightly different musical aims.
Enter K-Minstrel, a "musical display editor" from Kuma which takes advantage of all the Atari's main facilities — a reasonable sound chip, built-in MIDI, and great operating speed, efficiency and memory capacity.
K-Minstrel offers three channels of composition and playback on the computer alone (using its built-in sound chip), or four, eight, 12, or 16 channels playback via MIDI. Probably the cheapest way of getting 16 channels of (monophonic) MIDI playback is to buy a couple of Casio CZ-3000s, although you could go for a handful of Sequential Six-Traks which are about cheaply at the moment on the second-hand market. If you want 16 polyphonic channels, you're still talking about big money though.
In four-channel mode, K-Minstrel stores 3200 chords and you can program slurs, triplets, accelerandos and crescendos, so it has the potential of being pretty expressive. But how do you get into it?
The package consists of a single disk and a slim booklet which has descriptions and screen shots for all the major functions. The basic display is a double musical stave, and the pull- down options at the top of the screen (which you view using the computer's Mouse) are:
Music (Play, New, Load, Save, Quit)
Sequence (Play, Start, End, Copy, Delete, Move, Merge and Save)
Chord (Play, Delete, Insert, Mark)
Select (Channel, Volume, Tempo, Tempo No: Attack, Decay, Sustain)
Options (Change Key, Change Name, Transpose, Metronome, Print Pages).
On the Atari computers you have a choice of three screen resolutions: High, Medium and Low. K-Minstrel uses medium resolution so all the text looks a little skinny, but the screen display is pretty clear and at the bottom of the screen there's a box full of note lengths and rest lengths which you can pick up with the mouse and insert into the music display to make your own compositions.
Ariolasoft's Instant Music, which we looked at a while back, has lots of aids to composition such as a note interpreter, which adds notes in vaguely the correct scale between any two points you choose. K-Minstrel isn't this fancy, and so although you can hear each note as you move it about on the stave, the final compositional choice has to be entirely your own.
The demo pieces show just what you can do with the package and include a bit of Handel, a version of The Entertainer, Land Of Hope and Glory and much more. If you don't like the computer's sounds you can alter them using the Select page, which gives control over Attack, Decay and Sustain; each voice is represented by notes of a different colour on the stave to aid in composition, and you can enter either single notes or whole chords in a single operation.
The page number of each screen is indicated as the composition plays, but the music itself doesn't scroll along. You can load a sequence from disk to insert it after a section you've already completed, enter a title for the composition using Change Name, select a new key signature with Transpose and produce a metronome click if desired.
An Epsom-compatible dot matrix printer will transfer your completed composition to paper and, as we've mentioned you can change tempo ('accellerando') during the course of a piece, adjust volume ('crescendo') and insert fast triplet notes in place of existing pairs of notes.
Unfortunately the manual has nothing to say about the MIDI facilities of the package, and there's no obvious access to them on-screen. What is clear is that the more channels you compose with (up to 16), the fewer pages of music are available in total; so let's assume that whatever channels you use are transmitted monophonically on the MIDI channel of the same number.
At £29.95 K-Minstrel is by no means unreasonable and provides a cheap way to prepare basic musical scores and check them via the computer or via MIDI. Not a full-blown professional MIDI composition package though.
Do you already own a micro, ache to give it some musical applications, and find absolutely nothing available on the market for it? You've probably hitched yourself up to something like the Sinclair QL or the Elan Enterprise, not the most attractive of propositions to the world music market.
However, there is some hope for you in the form of the Hinton Instruments MIDIC interface which cunningly operates by converting RS232 input/output information to MIDI. Every computer in the world has RS232 in some form or other, even if you have to buy an expansion unit to add it, so the MIDIC effectively makes almost any computer (from Apples to ZX81s) MIDI-compatible.
On the Sinclair QL, for instance, RS232 is included as standard, so the MIDIC is ideal. The interface is a simple black box with an external power supply, MIDI In and Out sockets and RS232 socket, and has built-in software so that it will run with any suitably equipped machine.
The MIDIC interface with 1.0 software (brainy people can buy it without and write their own — get hold of MIDI 1.0 Specification from Sequential) costs £300 or £350 with battery back up to retain recorded patterns, and an RS232 interface cable for a QL, for instance, is £15. Contact Hinton for latest prices and updates.
Interestingly enough we recently saw the first known demo of a Sinclair Spectrum Plus running a MIDI synthesiser. Given by RAM at the PCW show at Olympia, it was in support of their new Music Machine, a sampler/composition device for small computers which sells for under £40. The Spectrum Plus has a MIDI output which uses a British Telecom socket (nothing like sticking to standards, eh Sir Clive?) and we thought it was a no-hoper, but there it was happily playing Jean-Michel Jarre snippets on a Korg EX800 with sampled drums thrown in.
Anyway, we'll take a look at The Music Machine, the upmarket Hybrid Arts ADAP sampler for the Atari 520ST, and other releases from the PCW show next month.
Sequential, (Contact Details)
Hinton Instruments, (Contact Details)
Jon Day, Kuma Computers Ltd, (Contact Details).
Feature by Mark Jenkins writing as Tony Mills
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